DNC chair hopeful runs in face of faction fight

DNC chair hopeful runs in face of faction fight
© Courtesy Photo

During a trip to Capitol Hill last week Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman hopeful Jaime Harrison struck gold. 

The South Carolina Democratic Party chairman hoped to visit the offices of his state’s senators, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse to advance appropriations bills in June, July The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won MORE and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE, to drop off almost 400 constituent letters largely blasting President Trump’s controversial travel ban or opposing the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 


As he was about to leave a binder of emails in Scott’s office lobby, the smiling senator appeared in the hallway. 

“How’s your journey toward the chair? It sounds like you’re fighting well,” the Republican said. 

“Look, he’s a student of Democratic politics,” Harrison replied. 

Harrison handed over the letters, telling Scott about his concerns with both DeVos and the immigration and refugee ban as the senator promised to take a look. 

Energized by the chance of catching Scott in the hallway, Harrison and his aide walked downstairs and to the next item on his whirlwind DNC campaign schedule.

But before he left the building, Harrison couldn’t help to crack a joke about the bald-headed, black Palmetto State politician that Harrison sometimes gets mistaken for.

“This proves that Tim Scott and Jaime Harrison are different people,” he said.

Harrison, a former lobbyist, is one of seven major candidates hoping to lead the Democratic Party through the choppy waters of the Trump administration.

Hand-delivering letters to senators’ offices isn’t glamorous work for a candidate to lead a national party. But Harrison needs to get attention in a DNC race that’s increasingly becoming a proxy fight between the party’s two poles. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden campaign promises will struggle if Republicans win back Congress Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers MORE (I-Vt.) and his progressive backers have coalesced behind Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison. The congressman also touts endorsements from more centrist lawmakers like Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHow to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs On The Money: How demand is outstripping supply and hampering recovery | Montana pulls back jobless benefits | Yellen says higher rates may be necessary Senate Democrats announce B clean bus plan MORE (N.Y.). 

But former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has his own backing from heavy hitters from the orbits of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE and former President Obama. Ex-Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderFirst redistricting lawsuits filed by Democratic group On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history Voter suppression bills are the first move in a bigger battle MORE and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE have endorsed Perez. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally and former DNC chairman, has also voiced his support.

For many in the party, the wounds opened during an often-bitter presidential primary battle between Clinton and Sanders still sting.

Harrison, whom DNC members see as running behind those two, wishes the feuding would stop.

“I get so passionate and upset at this nitpicky crap we’re hearing between all these various camps. It’s juvenile,” Harrison told The Hill. 

The race’s other candidates include New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, former Fox News commentator Jehmu Greene, Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttegieg. 

All of the candidates tout virtually identical campaign promises: returning power to state parties and finding a way to reconnect with the grassroots. But so far, most of the coverage has centered on the front-runners — Ellison and Perez — and their high-profile endorsements.

Harrison praises both men. But in his mind, the experience of a congressman or a Labor secretary doesn’t lend itself as well to the mission at hand. 

“When you are going up against a celebrity, the thing I like to say is: If I were talking about how to get things through the House of Representatives, I’d go to a congressman. If I wanted to negotiate a trade deal or labor dispute … I’d go to a secretary,” Harrison told The Hill. 

“If you want to rebuild a party, you have to think about going to someone who is doing that, and that’s a state party chair. … If Keith or Tom are chairs, they will be very good chairs. But the question is: Fo we want very good, or do we want a chair who can revitalize the party?” 

But despite the candidates’ general agreement during various debates and forums, the prospect of another Clinton-Sanders fight spilling over into the DNC race has frustrated some Democrats. 

Those divisions became clearer this week as Sanders, an Ellison supporter, responded to Biden’s endorsement of Perez with a statement casting both men as part of the “failed status-quo.”

Harrison told The Hill he was “disappointed” by Sanders’s statement, arguing it’s not helpful in promoting the type of unity Democrats will need to get back on track. 

“All y’all are older than I am, and we can’t continue down this road beating each other up, almost being in a food fight in the cafeteria. Someone needs to be the adult and say stop it,” Harrison said.

Despite the partisan rancor between Democrats and the GOP, Harrison looks fondly on the Republican National Committee (RNC) and believes much of the party’s recent success comes from tapping two consecutive state party chairmen as leaders.  

Instead of choosing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had reportedly angled to lead the party after the November elections, the RNC went with Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel after she received President Trump’s backing. 

In choosing then-Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, Harrison said, the RNC picked someone who “invested in the state infrastructures and in technology. And that’s made all the difference; they’ve started winning at the local levels.” 

The next DNC chair will also have to develop a new strategy for taking on a president with a knack for communicating directly to the American people, as well as find a way to break through with a federal government controlled by the opposing party. 

Arguing that the DNC must be the “convener” of a unifying message, Harrison bucked the idea of a “conciliatory” party in the age of Trump. 

“Everyone says the Democrats need to come to the table,” he said. “No, we are not going to come to the table where the main course are the people we fight for. 

“If that means fighting and stalling and doing everything we can in order to protect the folks we fight to represent, we will do that.”

Candidates have less than three weeks to win over a majority of the 447 DNC members who will choose the new chair on Feb. 25.

Both DNC members and chair candidates believe the race is still far from over, though it’s expected to go down to the wire between Ellison and Perez.

Despite that, Harrison said he’s confident in where he stands at this point with the DNC membership. He pointed to his two years of experience working as floor director for then-Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) as he spoke about whipping committee members to his side. 

“This is my old whip hat: You never disclose the whip hat because you never let the other side know who exactly are all the people you have,” he said. 

Harrison finds hope from his time working in the House, comparing the DNC battle to the 2006 race for House Democratic vice chairman. 

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) came into the vote as the favorites, but it was Connecticut’s John Larson who emerged victorious when the dust settled. 

“I’m the John Larson of the race,” Harrison said. 

“A lot of folks released endorsements here and there. It was this competition of who would release more. But in the end, when the members got in there and made their decision, it was much different than everyone thought it would be.”